David McConnon reports wolves are set to be introduced back into the wild, the pilot scheme is due to begin in Wicklow.
Wolves once roamed over all of Ireland — a native apex predator influencing other animals and even the ecosystem itself.
Wolves also captured our imagination, with plentiful tales throughout Celtic and later folklore. The ancient Irish had great respect — even affection — for the wolf, calling it “mac tíre”, meaning “son of the land”.
But then, persecuted for centuries, the last known Irish wolf was shot in County Carlow in 1786.
H.O.W.L. — the Hibernian Organisation of Wolves in the Landscape — proposes a small scale re-introduction of wolves to Ireland with a pilot programme in Wicklow National Park.
The presence of wolves will improve the natural ecosystem, increase the value of the local economy with additional tourism and enhance the wildlife experience of the hugely popular Wicklow Way walking trail.
The benefits of wolf re-introduction will include natural control of deer numbers. Deer numbers here are close to carrying capacity. With no natural predators, they have overgrazed plant life and also compete with sheep. Restricting plant regeneration also increases erosion along river banks.
Yellowstone National Park in the United States re-introduced wolves in 1995. Due to the wolves’ influence throughout the park since then, there is now much greater biodiversity, less erosion of river banks and a smaller, healthier population of deer.
Therefore even only a small number of wolves can have a noticeable positive impact on an ecosystem in a short space of time. It is this Yellowstone model on which H.O.W.L. will base the Irish re-introduction programme — albeit on a much smaller scale.
Sheep grazing may need to be restricted within some areas of the park, while possible compensation for farmers should be considered where livestock and wolves clash. However, farmers’ fears should be eased by Spanish research of wolves northwest of the Iberian Peninsula. It shows that sheep wearing protective collars sprayed with aftershave somehow seems to repulse wolves that then associate this odour with sheep and therefore avoid hunting them. Doing the same with livestock within the Wicklow Park should help lessen predation from wolves — and also make the farmers’ work more pleasant.
H.O.W.L. is conducting a feasibility study which will be followed by consultations with the appropriate authorities, farming and environmental groups, local communities and tourism bodies. We believe that a small population of wolves is preferable to an overpopulation of deer.
As with our Celtic ancestors, let us rekindle our appreciation of these intelligent social creatures and look forward to an Ireland where wolves are once again part of our natural landscape.